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Over the past few weeks, the Walt Disney Company has been under fire from all directions, both the public and internally, for its inaction towards Florida’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill that led to many speak-outs and accusations against on the company on how they treated LGBTQ+ content and creators.

In this article, we will look through Disney’s involvement with the bill, what people have been saying about it, Disney’s responses and criticisms, as well as the company’s recent, but also long history of mishandling the LGBTQ+ characters, and content.

A rally protesting the controversial legislation in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Tampa Bay Times via AP/ Martha Asencio-Rhine)

What is the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill?

Officially known as the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, but opponents are calling it the more commonly known name “Don’t Say Gay.” What the bill actually does that is imposing a prohibition on age-inappropriate classroom instructions of sexual orientation and gender identity starting in kindergarten through grade 3 (8-9 year-olds):

Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards. [97-101]

The bill also requires the schools to notify the parents when their children receive any mental, emotional, or physical health services or counseling, and the parents would also have the rights to opt their children out of it completely if they see fit. Furthermore, the parents can take legal actions if they think the schools do not comply with any of the requirements which would be paid by the school districts:

…adopt procedures for notifying a student’s parent if there is a change in the student’s services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being and the school’s ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student. The procedures must reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children… [68-75]

At the beginning of the school year, each school district shall notify parents of each healthcare service offered at their student’s school and the option to withhold consent or decline any specific service. [106-109]

If a concern is not resolved by the school district, a parent may …. Bring an action against the school district to obtain a declaratory judgment that the school district procedure or practice violates this paragraph and seek injunctive relief. A court may award damages and shall award reasonable attorney fees and court costs to a parent who receives declaratory or injunctive relief. [129-130, 146-151]

The bill was introduced by Joe Harding (R-D22), a member of the Florida House of Representatives, supported by other party members in the state parliament. They claimed that it would protect young children from being indoctrinated, or as the Governor’s spokesperson called it groomed, by teachers and school curriculum into certain sexuality or identity until the students are “developmentally appropriated,” and these discussions should be handled by the parents. The lawmakers also claimed that the legislation would not prohibit any informal discussions outside of the classes where a teacher may be engaged in a conversation about gender or sexuality when asked by a student.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaking at Florida Family Policy Council. (Twitter/ Ron DeSantis)

On the other hand, the opponents see the legislation as problematic and discriminatory. The biggest criticism calls out the broad nature of the language used in the bill that allows for subjective interpretations of the text; creating a sense of fear, intentionally or not, on what can and cannot be say. Additionally, by having role of school counseling reduced and disclosed, it eliminates one of the safest and most accessible space where children can freely have discussions about personal problems with adults, relating to sexuality or not. The topics may become stigmatized overtime, and closeted children may not feel comfortable in outing their sexuality later on.

As for the time of this writing, both the Republican-led Florida House of Representatives and Senates have passed the bill. It is currently only awaiting for either an approval or a veto signed by Governor Ron DeSantis to complete the state legislation. DeSantis has strongly expressed his support for the bill in the past.

Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World Orlando. (Pexels)

What Does Any of This Have to Do With Disney?

The Walt Disney Company has a major stake in the politics and economy of Florida given the fact that it employing over 77,000 people under the Walt Disney World resorts located in Central Florida near the city of Orlando. The resorts bring in over 50 million visitors a year before the pandemic, and contribute greatly to the stimulation of the local economy, especially the tourism industry of Orlando which, as a whole, generated over $75.2 billion in 2019.

By that case, it would not be surprising to see Disney regularly donating to local politicians. The criticism, however, arose from the fact that Disney have been donating to every single sponsor and co-sponsor of the bill in question. People were asking for the company to cut ties with these politicians; or at the very least, say something about it, but it took Disney way too long to response. Many people were taking the silence as a statement for the time being.

Bob Chapek speaking at D23 Expo event in 2017 before gaining the CEO position in 2020 (Openverse/ Walt Disney Television)

How Did Disney First Respond to the Matter?

Although, people were angry then; they were even more frustrated from the response in the leaked internal memo by the company’s CEO Bob Chapek.

In the memo, Chapek claimed that the reason why the company chose to not give any statement is because they can be “counterproductive” for achieving changes, and that the company supports inclusion and diversity in different ways- one of those being through their content. He then listed films and TV shows like Enchanto, Black Panther, Pose, and Love, Victor for examples. Chapek also stated that they will reassessing their advocacy strategies including political givings.

This response did not satisfy the public and was heavily criticized on social media with #DisneySayGay, #saygaydisney and #DisneyDoBetter gaining momentum and used by many creators and fans alike. Here are some of the reactions on Twitter:

Never been quiet about my love of Disney over the years but being loud about my own identity as a queer human took YEARS. Breaks me in pieces that a company that literally pays me to speak is paying to keep me silent by funding puritanical Anti-LGBTQIA+ politicians #DisneySayGay

Brock Powell, voice actor for many Disney projects (@brocktocks) [redirect]

tl;dr: “We will continue to invite the LGBTQ+ community to spend their money on our sometimes-inclusive content while we support politicians working tirelessly to curtail LGBTQ+ rights.” I’m a huge Disney fan as is well documented on this site. Even I say this statement is weak.

Drew Z. Greenberg, executive producer, and writer on Marvel’s Agents of Shield (@DrewZachary) [redirect]

It is so frustrating that us LGBT Disney employees have to speak up about existing and wanting other people in our community to be safe, in fear for our livelihoods. If the company is so dedicated to inclusion, why is standing up for the safety of LGBT youth, at odds with it.

Sam King, storyboard artist and director on many Disney projects (@SamanthaCKing) [redirect]
Florida Sen. Dennis Baxley in 2017 (Times/ Scott Keeler)

In the shareholding meeting that took place just a few days after the memo was publicized, Chapek said that they would not know how their donations were going to be used when they give money to politicians. This was immediately debunked as many of the politicians that Disney has been donating to have known to be anti-LGBT and created all sorts of anti-LGBT legislations prior to the Don’t Say Gay bill. One of the politicians Disney donated to was Florida Senate Dennis Baxley’s (R-D12) campaign who sponsored many anti-LGBT legislations as well as this one, among other controversial legislations like Stand Your Ground. He later claimed that Disney is interested on a variety of topics that he and his colleagues addressed in the state legislature as well.

Further Actions Taken to Protest Disney

In that same shareholding meeting, Disney also pledged to donate $5 million dollars for LGBTQ+ advocacy, which was refused by one of the organizations, the Human Rights Campaign on the ground that they will not accept it until meaningful action is taken towards the bill.

A letter written by Disney’s LGBTQ+ Business Employee Resource Groups to the executives was among the first of many letters asking for the company to speak out and take action against the bill (via Variety), followed by Pixar Animations, the Animation Guild, GLAAD, and others. Soon after, Pixar Animations and Marvel Studios also joined in solidarity and distanced itself from their parent company by tweeting a statement denouncing the bill and promotes their commitment to inclusion and diversity.

As the conflict grew internally, Bob Chapek later went on to apologize in another company’s memo saying that he let everyone in the company down, and missed the mark when choosing silence rather than speaking out. He also stated that Disney will pause all of their political donations in the state of Florida.

March rally at Walt Disney World in Orlando (AIDS Healthcare Foundation via AP/ Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Despite the memo, a week-long informal online and in-person walkouts were scheduled to start from March 15th to the 22nd which would take place 15 minutes of each day at around 3 p.m. in the respective time zones. The walkouts are organized by @DisneyWalkout on Twitter which claims to be in partnership with members of the LGBTQ+ community across the Walt Disney Company (including Disney Corporate, Disney Television Animation, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution, Disney Streaming, Enterprise Finance, Enterprise Technology/Global Information Security and Bento Box) in the open letter. They also provided a website with further instructions, demands, and petitions along with alleged employees’ statements. It is unclear how many people participated in the walkouts, or how successful they were.

Queerbating and Disney’s Indecisiveness on LGBTQ+ Content

In the letter written by Pixar’s employees, the animation studio disputed Disney’s claim which stated that the content they produced is how the company helps creating a more inclusive world. According to the letter, the executives at Disney allegedly downplayed and cut “every moment of overtly gay affection.”

The former staffers of Blue Sky Studios, once owned by Fox and shut down soon after the merger, said that Disney allegedly pressured the studio to remove the same-sex kiss during the development of ‘Nimona.’ Despite the fact that the relationship of those two characters is featured prominently in the original graphic novels. The film was effectively cancelled after the closure of Blue Sky.

Specter, voiced by Lena Waithe, in Pixar’s Onward (Pixar, Walt Disney)

The company is seen to not be fully commit to the cause in many cases. The film ‘Onward,’ released in 2020, was heavily marketed in the United States as the first Disney/Pixar animated film to feature an openly lesbian characters, a Cyclops police officer named ‘Specter’. When in actuality, the character’s sexuality was mentioned in passing in a throwaway dialogue by alluding to a girlfriend. The dialogue was then changed from “girlfriend” to a more gender-ambiguous “partner” in the Russian release of the film.

A similar thing also happened in the Russian release of ‘Avengers: Endgame’ where a gay character is talking in a support group, attended by Captain America, after the loss of his partner during the beginning of the film. The Russian audience was not able to see the film in the English language, and the dub of the film was confirmed to ‘tweak’ some of the dialogues. Marvel superhero Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson, was also confirmed to be bisexual by the studio, although the scene mentioning her sexuality was cut from ‘Thor: Ragnarok.’

The cast of Love, Victor. From left to right: Bebe Wood, Anthony Turpel, Michael Cimino, and George Sear (Hulu/ Michael Desmond) 

In 2020, Disney also faced a controversy surrounding the show ‘Love, Victor’ which was also mentioned in Chapek’s memo. Love, Victor was based of then-Fox’s successful coming-of-age/ coming out film ‘Love, Simon.’ The spin-off show, originally developed for Disney Plus, was moved to Hulu without a seemingly clear reason why. It was later confirmed in an article by Entertainment Weekly, which they stated alcohol consumption, martial issues, and sexual exploration to be the reasons for the move. Many people did not agree with the explanation given the fact that these “mature” themes have been featured in many content on the platform which would safely be under PG or PG-13 ratings.

Disney also promoted the inclusion of LGBTQ+ scenes in their tent-pole franchises heavily. In the cases of the live-action adaptation of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and ‘The Rise of Skywalker’; they were promoted as the first to show same-sex kiss and gay characters in their respective franchises. The reactions to them were mixed however, mostly underwhelming, embarrassing, and confused on whether they actually happened. These “moments” went by very quickly in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots, or obscured in background. People also claimed that it looked as if they was put in place where it is easy to take them out when necessary.

A still from Pixar’s short film ‘Out’ in the SparkShort series (Pixar, Walt Disney) 

Things to Come, for Better and Worse

While there are many cases where Disney seems disingenuous of their promises, in the recent years; we also saw Disney to be more willing in taking shots at LGBTQ+ inclusion of their content, and it does show in their upcoming and recent releases. Most notably being the Pixar’s short ‘Out’ which put the act of coming out at the forefront of the story.

Although, the backlash of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is still justified because Disney is still trying to play both sides of the field. As of now, the company is shifting towards opposing the bill after the backlash- which a source told Variety that because of the backlash, the company decided to put back the same-sex kiss scene in their upcoming Pixar’s ‘Lightyear’ after previously removing it.

The Parental Rights in Education bill is expected to be complete soon despite many nationwide protests. At the time of this writing, there are over 150 anti-LGBTQ+ legislation proposals appearing across the United States. A bill similar to “Don’t Say Gay” was also proposed in Georgia, and the question is being asked for all Hollywood studios to take action since the state has become a hub for major film productions for lower tax rates.

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